A contrast in focus about Oklahoma’s education needs (Capitol Update)

There’s an interesting contrast between the focus of Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education and that of Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt and is running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

During the regular session, Rep. McBride concentrated on trying to respond to the teacher shortage. Unable to accomplish a teacher pay raise, McBride, along with his Senate counterpart Sen. Dwayne Pemberton, authored House Bill 3564 that provides for the Regents for Higher Education to create a scholarship program for students willing to get teaching degrees and teach in Oklahoma. The program will provide $1,000 scholarships each year for the first three years of college and $2,500 in the final year along with $4,000 per year bonuses for five years of teaching in Oklahoma. During the floor discussion on the FY 2023 budget, McBride told House members there was no appetite during budget negotiations for a substantial education budget increase this year.   

In recognition that the scholarships will not have an immediate impact on classrooms, last week Rep. McBride called for federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to be used to provide a $5,000 bonus for teachers who are continuing to teach in Oklahoma and a $4,000 bonus for teachers relocating to Oklahoma schools. ESSER funds are grants provided through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that went to elementary and secondary schools to provide districts with emergency funds to address the impact COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools. 

According to Rep. McBride, only about 44.5 percent of the ESSER funds have been spent. However, some of the funds have already been allocated for teacher signing and retention bonuses and other initiatives like reading training, summer programing, intensive math training, and mental health services as outlined in the federal law. But give Rep. McBride credit for concentrating on the teacher shortage crisis and trying to come up with answers. Perhaps he’ll have better success next session with more permanent solutions like increased teacher salaries, among others. 

Meanwhile, last week Secretary Walters sent a letter to the State Board of Education demanding it provide “immediate clarity” regarding the provisions of Senate Bill 615 passed in the last session to govern school restroom use. The bill provides that multiple occupancy restrooms be marked male or female and used exclusively by persons of the sex shown on the individual’s original birth certificate. The bill also requires that each public school or public charter school provide access to a single-occupancy restroom to any individual who does not wish to comply with the provisions of the new law. 

A non-compliant school district or charter school will have its funding decreased five percent in the following school year. The bill also provides that any parent or legal guardian of a student at the school can sue the district for a violation of the new law. SB 615 passed the House 69 yes, 14 no, and 17 not voting. It passed the Senate 38 yes, 7 no, and 3 not voting. With the failure to provide increased public-school funding, and with the focus on restrooms by the state’s top appointed education leader during the runup to an election, one must wonder why Oklahoma has a teacher shortage crisis. Perhaps some teachers have concluded that that’s what Oklahomans want.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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